Nicaragua The Sad Saga of a Sandalista

An American death stirs sorrow, outrage and propaganda

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A harsh afternoon sun was setting as the cortege made its way up the steep incline. Some of the men, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra among them, rotated as pallbearers. At the hilltop cemetery overlooking Matagalpa, a city 75 miles northeast of Managua, the crowd of more than 1,000 paid their final respects to Benjamin Linder, 27, an engineer from Oregon who died last week of shrapnel wounds suffered during a contra attack. He was the first American volunteer working on behalf of the Sandinistas to die in Nicaragua's five-year-old civil war. Linder's parents and two siblings had flown in from the U.S., honoring Linder's request to be buried in Nicaragua if he was killed. Shortly before his father David poured Oregon soil on the wooden casket, he said, "Benjamin felt he belonged here."

Linder was killed while working, without wages, on a rural-electrification project in Nicaragua's north-central Jinotega province. But those simple facts quickly drowned last week in a flood of self-serving political rhetoric from all sides. At the funeral, Ortega charged that Linder had been "assassinated by mercenaries following orders from the CIA." Several American groups opposed to U.S. funding of the contras similarly held the Reagan Administration responsible for "murder." Linder's father also fingered Washington, declaring,"Who killed Ben? He was killed by someone, they were hired by someone, and they were paid by someone, and so on down the line to < the President of the U.S." The contras tried to pin blame on Managua by charging the Sandinista regime with having allowed Linder to enter a war zone.

The finger pointing was inflamed by the conflicting reports surrounding Linder's death. Eyewitness accounts reaching both Managua and the U.S. suggested that Linder and some government workers were measuring the water flow of a stream in a northern village when a band of contras struck. The contras claim that a fire fight ensued, a distinct possibility since the Sandinista leadership encourages Nicaraguans to carry weapons in war zones in self-defense. The rebels regard anyone armed or in uniform as a combatant, though the Sandinistas view many of the same people as civilians. It remained unclear whether Linder, who sometimes carried a pistol for protection, was armed.

Most disturbing were suggestions that the contras had targeted Linder for execution. Although two Nicaraguan workers were also killed in the ambush, there were unconfirmed reports that Linder and his electrification program had been the focus of the attack. An American volunteer who was captured by rebels 18 months ago said after her escape that she had seen Linder's name on a contra hit list. Last month a Nicaraguan woman emerged from rebel captivity with a similar report. The contras denied the charge. Harry Bergold, the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, dismissed the plot theory as "counterintuitive," arguing that the rebels knew they risked losing U.S. funding if they murdered an American.

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